In this blog post, Middle School Chinese teacher Daphne Monroy explains why empathy is crucial to learning a second language. She discusses how she created and cultivated a safe and trusting environment for her students to practice and make mistakes within her first week of teaching at Haverford. A version of this story first appeared in the Middle School newspaper, The Fords Forum.
New to Haverford this year, Ms. Daphne Monroy is currently teaching 6th grade and Form I Chinese. One of the professional goals she set up in the beginning of this year was to create an inviting classroom through empathy. On the first day of the school, she asked for the definition of empathy, and one student replied with a perfect answer: “Put yourself in other people’s shoes.” Ms. Monroy then explained what students could do with empathy in the Chinese classroom. After she created a nametag for each student, Ms. Monroy started to go around the room and say their names. She pronounced the familiar names correctly, but after mispronouncing a few of the students’ names, Ms. Monroy stopped and shared how she felt. Ms. Monroy explained this is exactly what they were going to experience when learning Chinese—anxiety, nervousness, frustration, making mistakes over and over, etc.
On the second day, Ms. Monroy made the same mistakes again when she tried to pronounce a few of the students’ names! And yes, this happens to second language learners as well—they might make the same mistakes again and again until they “notice” their mistakes and eventually are able to “self-correct” themselves. Starting on the second day, the students were getting comfortable in sharing their feelings, and some of them admitted that they did not pronounce their classmates’ names correctly either. Ms. Monroy explained further that she was creating a safe and mutually trusting environment in which students could feel comfortable to speak a second language and to share their feelings. She promised students that nobody’s pronunciation would be laughed at because of the empathy that everyone embraced.
Ms. Monroy explained...that she was creating a safe and mutually trusting environment in which students could feel comfortable to speak a second language and to share their feelings. She promised students that nobody’s pronunciation would be laughed at because of the empathy that everyone embraced.
On the third day, Ms. Monroy thought she was almost perfect, but she still made a mistake with one student’s last name. That student shared that most teachers did not pronounce his last name correctly. Ms. Monroy was determined to pronounce everybody’s English name perfectly, even though she was going to give each student a Chinese name. With empathy in mind, she does not want students to become perfectionists like her because some of the characteristics of perfectionism are not beneficial when learning to speak a second language. For example, being afraid of making mistakes might increase delays of production in speaking a second language. Consequently, Ms. Monroy encouraged the students to follow a rule of thumb for learning a second language: “Make a lot of mistakes.” Regarding the phrase, “practice makes perfect,” Ms. Monroy replaced “practice” with “mistakes” to help students understand it was okay to make mistakes and not to be afraid of mistakes.
Everyone knows how intimidating it can be to speak a second language, and it is definitely not easy to get out of one’s comfort zone to speak a second language. Fortunately, with empathy and the inviting classroom Ms. Monroy created, some students shared that Chinese has become their favorite class within just a short one and a half weeks. Ms. Monroy is also very proud of her students being willing to take risks in speaking. She could not be happier with her classes, so it’s a win-win!